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Gavin Williamson to announce ‘free speech champion’ with power to sanction universities

It comes after education secretary called on Office for Students to take more robust action

Zoe Tidman
Sunday 14 February 2021 20:36 GMT
Gavin Williamson is expected to announce new role next week
Gavin Williamson is expected to announce new role next week (PA)

Gavin Williamson is to announce a new role of a “free speech champion” who will be able to fine universities that stifle freedom of speech, according to reports.

The education secretary will announce the new measures next week with the aim of strengthening existing legal protection,The Sunday Telegraph reported. 

Last year, he welcomed a decision by the University of Cambridge to reject guidelines that would have required students, staff and speakers to be “respectful” of differing opinions amid concerns over implications on freedom of speech, opting instead for a policy telling people to be “tolerant”.

“What must not happen is that universities decide whose words will be heard and handed down to the next generation and whose will be unheard,” Mr Williamson said.

The education secretary said he wrote to vice-chancellors last to urge them to continue to “champion free speech” and said the government was looking at “how to strengthen it further”.

He will reveal plans for the new role of a “free speech champion” on Tuesday, who will granted powers to support freedom of speech at universities, according to The Sunday Telegraph.

They will have the power to impose fines on university providers or student unions found to restrict freedom of speech unlawfully.

The “free speech champion” will also be able to order redress if an individual has been demoted or dismissed for their views, according to the newspaper.

The new role will be set up to work from the higher education regulator, the Office for Students (OfS).

While the Department for Education refuse to comment on the story, it is understood details on the measures will be set out later in the week.

It came as Mr Williamson called on the OfS to take more robust measures, such as issuing fines or even deregistration, if the quality of a university falls short.

Last year, the education secretary called for action to be taken against students after Amber Rudd, former home secretary, was “no-platformed” at an event at Oxford University, which was cancelled half an hour before it was due to start.

Additional reporting by Press Association

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